Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Başakşehir is an emerging district of Istanbul that was planned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he was the city’s mayor in the 1990s. Today it is part of an archipelago of privileged, upper-middle-class religious enclaves that ring Istanbul as part of an urban construction boom overseen by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) after it became the ruling party in Turkey in 2002. As prime minister, Erdoğan promoted development projects throughout Turkey’s large cities under the framework of urban transformation. In all of these projects, the government declared a state of emergency over these areas in order to bypass laws that regulate urban planning, giving the AKP government enormous powers to transform Turkey’s urban landscape in its own self-image.

Since 2004, the AKP has overseen the production of more than 700,000 new homes through the Mass Housing Administration, which has extraordinary authority over urban planning. The AKP also subsidizes private companies to accelerate construction. Much of the new construction is geared toward building gated communities in Istanbul and other Anatolian cities. Because gated communities facilitate the privatization of municipal services, construction firms now provide these services to thousands of families. In addition, the government and the construction companies see large enclaves as profitable investments. And, since the 1960s, Islamists—including those that shape the AKP ideology—have seen gated communities such as Başakşehir as the most suitable urban form for practicing an Islamic lifestyle.

Erdoğan’s original goal in Başakşehir was to create an affordable alternative for people previously living in gecekondu (shanty) areas, populated by the poor and rural migrants produced through waves of internal migration and forced displacement from Kurdish regions in the 1990s. Yet Başakşehir’s social class profile improved significantly under Erdoğan’s neoliberal economic policies and both rapid economic advancement and its deeply religious character have made it a stronghold of the AKP and a microcosm of AKP urbanism.

Dreams of Destruction and Renewal

For my doctoral thesis,[1] I interviewed upper-middle class religious women in Başakşehir. Most of the women are well-educated and shared stories about their efforts to resist the ban on veiling at universities in the pre-AKP period. Now, however, they do not work because the conservative ideology of the AKP suggests that a woman’s primary duty is to preserve the family. This conservative ideology functions as their bittersweet bond between their families and the AKP. In turn, they owe their upward mobility to the work and support provided to their spouses by the AKP. Beautiful houses, credit cards and secure living areas function as compensation for their sacrifices. When I was conducting interviews in 2010–2011, most of the women had been living in Başakşehir for two to three years. They moved there from either gecekondu areas or historic districts in central Istanbul that were increasingly beset by poverty and a growing list of social problems. Istanbul that were increasingly beset by poverty and a growing list of social problems.

When asked why they chose to move to Başakşehir, religious women living in the neighborhood gave a standard answer: “We wished to live with people similar to us,” meaning religious, Turkish, Sunni and not poor. They also shared similar complaints about their former neighborhoods as being overcrowded and having too much crime, poor infrastructure and immoral people. By immorality, they meant issues such as alcohol consumption, dress codes and sexuality. Their concerns about morality did not extend to Islamic values relating to public and economic matters such as usury, rightful due (kul hakkı: the rights of others in Islam) and deference to contracts. They dismissed the violation of Islamic codes in these matters even as they discussed the difficulties of a Muslim living in a corrupt world, arguing that Muslims have to be economically strong in order to protect their morality.

Yet Başakşehir’s residents also complained about feeling bored in their new neighborhood and distant from the city and its social life. They expressed a desire to return to the city center and supported AKP government plans to build new gated communities in their old neighborhoods that would uphold the values of its version of Islam. Given my extensive religious education, I asked, “But you should protect your own ego from evil, it is not the government’s business. This is your divine exam, not the state’s. Is it not?” In response, I heard that the world is too complicated and sinful, and individual believers cannot protect themselves. “We need to get together and rebuild our cities as sin-free places. Otherwise, God will punish us badly.”

After one Qur’an recitation session with these religious women, we talked in an apartment on the tenth floor of a huge apartment block within a gated community made up of several blocks of tall buildings with identical architecture and colors. One woman said that one of the symptoms of the apocalypse is the increasing number of tall buildings. When the final day approaches, she said, people will compete to build higher and higher buildings in the cities. But, I asked, “Is it not weird that we are living in a district built in the manner described as a symptom of the apocalypse?” For a short moment of silence, nearly everyone looked out the window and reflected. One middle-aged woman broke the silence. “My daughter, the apocalypse will happen anyway, let’s enjoy our time.” Then she continued, “The Qur’an says no one can stop the apocalypse, not even the Prophet Mohammed. So, what can we do? Let’s pray we are the last generation before the apocalypse, thus our time in the grave will be shorter.”

To cover up this secret, they imagined destroying that city and building a new one as the only way to own the city. Erdoğan was like an avatar, realizing their dreams.

Despite their concerns over the construction of high rise buildings, these women expressed a sense of resignation in the face of massive societal dislocations. Moreover, as the AKP grew in power, it raised many religious families from the lower-class to the middle- and upper-middle class. With that mobility came larger houses, cars, businesses, wages, credit cards, private colleges for their kids and—perhaps most importantly—stories of success that they could share with great pride.

Nevertheless, reflecting on their former neighborhoods in central Istanbul reminded them of who they were, a self-image composed of a complicated yet strongly affective amalgam of resentment, envy and humiliation which together generated a destructive, and somewhat apocalyptic, vision concerning the future of the city. I listened with surprise as they imagined new projects that would destroy and reconstruct their former neighborhoods. “I escaped from Fatih because everybody is there. There is no infrastructure, no plan. Everybody gossips about everybody. But if those current buildings are destroyed and new Ottoman neighborhoods are built, of course I would go back there. I am an urban person.”

What emerged from these discussions was the desire to cover up a secret by actively destroying its traces. The secret for the women I interviewed was their individual and collective consciousness that they were once poor and excluded, not counted among the city’s rightful inhabitants by the previous secular Kemalist regime. To cover up this secret, they imagined destroying that city and building a new one as the only way to own the city. Erdoğan was like an avatar, realizing their dreams.

Dreams Meet Resistance in Gezi Park

The fierce protests that erupted in the area of Istanbul known as Gezi Park in June 2013 were, in part, the response by a different composition of Istanbul inhabitants to the destructive dreams of this emerging religious upper-middle class and their actualization under Erdoğan.

The Gezi Park protests were the first time that the AKP faced significant public resistance from below to their urban transformation project. The term “below” is important because the AKP’s legitimacy rests on the claim that it enjoys widespread support from below. The protests, however, revealed an alternative “below,” one that shared nothing with the AKP. Furthermore, the site of the protests—Taksim Square, Gezi Park and the surrounding streets and buildings—was the very place from which many of the pro–AKP religious upper-middle-class families of Başakşehir were fleeing to protect their morality. Encountering this forgotten “below” in Taksim Square held tremendous meaning for the AKP, as that encounter resulted from Erdoğan’s plan to destroy the place’s symbolism and replace it with new symbolism.

The symbolic center of Taksim Square is the iconic Monument of the Republic with figures representing women, peasants and workers alongside Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his colleagues, who established modern Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Pietro Canonica, an Italian sculptor, completed the monument in 1928, just five years after the proclamation of the republic. The Istanbul Municipality funded the statue via donations by citizens. The square also has symbolic importance for the left in Turkey due to a deadly May Day protest in 1977, when 35 people were trampled to death due to panic caused by gunfire, whose perpetrators were never identified. Erdoğan promised to reopen Taksim Square for May Day gatherings when he first became prime minister, and he did so for three years between 2010 and 2012. Before and after these years, however, labor unions and left organizations were banned from the square under the excuse that the site was under construction.

But it is the square’s Ottoman history and structures that have the most symbolic importance in relation to the AKP’s and Erdoğan’s dreams of urban transformation for Istanbul. In the eighteenth century, the Ottoman authorities built a structure named Maksim as the center of the water distribution system of Istanbul. Later, the Ottoman state built an army barracks called Topçu Kışlası (Artillery Barracks) nearby, on the precise spot that would become Gezi Park. The Gezi protests erupted in 2013 when Erdoğan, as prime minister, declared his intention to rebuild the Artillery Barracks on its original location.

The Ottoman Sultan Selim III originally built the Artillery Barracks in 1806 in the context of his attempts to modernize the Ottoman Army. In 1909, after the second declaration of a constitutional regime by the Ottoman state, military officers who were disillusioned with the reforms led a revolt from these barracks. As religious and conservative leaders and their followers joined the revolt, the unrest evolved into a popular reactionary movement against the government. According to the new constitution, conservative Muslims would lose their privileges under the principle of equal citizenship and would be subject to the secular rule of the Party of Union and Progress (PUP). The conservative officers and religious leaders wanted to keep Sultan Abdülhamid II in power but abolish the constitution and related military reforms. For them, the PUP was responsible for their discontent.

Although some members of the PUP government resigned, the revolt continued and many soldiers and civilians were killed. The PUP-affiliated Army of Action, based in Thessaloniki, travelled to Istanbul to suppress the revolt. Mustafa Kemal, who would go on to become the founding father of the modern Republic, was a lieutenant commander of the Army of Action. For the PUP and the Army of Action, responsibility for the uprising belonged to Abdülhamid II. They formed a new government, sent Abdülhamid II to exile in Thessaloniki and declared Mehmet Reşat Efendi the new sultan.

Following the revolt, the Artillery Barracks were abandoned and over time became an artifact of the past. After the construction of the Monument of the Republic, the Armenian community built a cemetery and a small church on a neighboring piece of land and later the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) was built on the site of the Artillery Barracks. Yet the Artillery Barracks remained a decrepit and almost haunted place until the French planner Henri Prost suggested that the land became a public park. The municipality destroyed the remaining barracks, and the park was named after İsmet İnönü—the strongman who ruled Turkey immediately after Mustafa Kemal—popularly known as Gezi Park.

At a symbolic level, then, restoring elements of the Ottoman–era urban landscape in Taksim Square through the destruction of Gezi Park is in keeping with Erdoğan’s longstanding effort, along with the use of public money to finance books, movies, television series and exhibitions, to celebrate Abdülhamid II as the last sublime sultan. As a political leader deploying the power of Islamic religiosity, Erdoğan’s restoration of the image of Abdülhamid II are part of his attempt to narrate his own legitimacy in terms of continuity with Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic past. For example, Erdoğan waged a battle to transform Yildiz Palace, the most prominent material legacy of Abdülhamid II, into a presidential residence. And the proliferation of clock towers in gated communities represents a tribute to the urban modernization projects initiated by Abdülhamid II.

The Gezi protests began as a reaction to Erdoğan’s plans to destroy the park, rebuild the Artillery Barracks and convert it into a shopping mall. Once the protests began, however, others went to the park and to Taksim in order to stop the police violence against protesters. When the demonstrations spread throughout Turkey and began to widen their criticism of AKP government policies, some members of the government indicated a willingness to compromise in Taksim Square. Erdoğan, however, insisted he would rebuild the Artillery Barracks and replace the abandoned AKM with a baroque opera house.

A friend of mine working for Erdoğan’s office told me that Erdoğan watched the demonstrations at least once from the Gökkafes, a 154–meter skyscraper near Gezi Park. What could he see from that distance? How did he reflect on his image in Gezi Park, given that his portrait was imprinted on banners covering Taksim Square and the park?

After the July 2016 coup attempt, the first place that Erdoğan’s supporters gathered to celebrate their victory against the coup was not in one of the new squares, Kazlıçeşme or Yenikapı, that Erdoğan had built to gather crowds for political meetings and similar events. Those squares are artificial in that they were built by filling the shoreline with debris from the neighborhoods of Istanbul destroyed as part of Erdoğan’s urban transformation project. Urbanists often describe these squares as tumors of the city. Instead, religious and pro–AKP crowds gathered in Taksim Square. After a couple of days, Erdoğan organized another meeting in Yenikapı, in an effort to invent a “Yenikapı spirit,” a new and conservative spirit to defend Erdoğan’s rule as the democratically elected president.

Istanbul’s Eyes

To mark the fifth anniversary of the Gezi protests in 2018, an anonymously created slogan spread through social media: “The darkness leaves; Gezi remains.” Variations on the slogan soon emerged: “Corruption goes; Gezi remains.” “Oppression goes; Gezi remains.” These slogans remind both the AKP and the broader Turkish society that the spirit of Gezi is alive. One variation of the slogan, authored by Volkan Kesanbilici—“The eye goes; Gezi remains”—invokes the 36 people, including Kesanbilici, who lost their eyes when police deliberately aimed tear gas canisters at the heads of protesters.

Gezi Park remains, but many changes have occurred in Taksim Square since the protests. The eerie and vacant AKM building remained for a while, just as had the Artillery Barracks in the early decades of the Republic. But once construction began on a mosque—another project initiated by Erdoğan in Taksim Square—the AKM was fully demolished.

Prior to the June 2018 elections, Erdoğan visited Taksim Square. He first viewed the construction of the mosque and later the empty place where the AKM had stood. A photograph of the second visit went viral on social media, showing Erdoğan staring at the empty lot with an expression of anxiety and anger.

Since the Gezi protests, the lost eyes of Volkan Kesanbilici and others obsess me with an imaginary scene: Two persons are looking into each other’s eyes. They do not like each other; perhaps they are rivals. Neither is happy with the reflection of himself in the other’s eyes. Suddenly, one of them can no longer bear the burden of facing himself as reflected in the other’s eyes. To make the image go away, he takes out one of the eyes of his rival, becoming the perpetrator and making the other the victim.

Sometime later, the two come together once again. The victim has covered his lost eye with a patch. When the perpetrator looks at the patch over the victim’s lost eye, his reflection is nothing but the dark eye patch. The second eye of the victim is still there, but the perpetrator is obsessed with the patch—the patch that now reflects who he is and what he did. His facial expression must have been much like that of Erdoğan when he gazed upon the empty space where the AKM once stood.

The never-ending conservative discourse about how Muslims in Turkey were excluded and repressed by the secular parliamentary “ancien régime” gives rise to a mindset that seeks compensation for the past in the future. In this state of mind, the self-image of the new ruler merges with the self-image of his followers and their secret dreams to own the city through its destruction. What they do to the city represents the actualization of their wounded self-image on the urban landscape. Now, after the June 2018 elections, Erdoğan has all the authority he needs to continue Turkey’s urban transformation, and as the avatar of his enthusiastic followers, he is the only master of this wounded landscape. At least for a while, the rest, with their remaining eyes, have to confine themselves to witnessing him enact these dreams.

 


Endnotes

1. Ayse Çavdar, “Loss of Modesty: The Adventure of a Muslim Family from Mahalle to Gated Community,” PhD dissertation (European University of Viadrina, 2014).

How to cite this article:

Ayse Çavdar "The Destructive Dreams of AKP Urbanism," Middle East Report 287 (Summer 2018).
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